It’s a gorgeous July day in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, with temperatures hovering in the low 80s, blue skies stretching overhead and brilliant sunshine lighting up the rural, rolling landscape, the perfect kind of day to tool around the valley’s vintners with Tesla Custom Winery Tours. My guide, Andrew, and I have just exited Montinore Estate, our first stop, and I’m already a little drunk — not on alcohol, but rather the entire experience, the incredible wine, fine food and stunning scenery.
There’s a reason wine tourism was projected to generate a whopping 43 million visits and $17.7 billion in expenditures, according to WineAmerica’s 2017 Economic Impact Report on the American Wine Industry. Visiting vino producers is fun. And it’s great for group travel, especially on the West Coast. There, winery-dense places like the Willamette Valley, the legendary Napa Valley and Sonoma County of northern California, Washington’s up-and-coming Columbia Valley and urban wine destination Seattle make it easy for groups to hit hot spot after hot spot in one festive fell swoop.
Napa Valley, California
Legendary Napa might be a magnet for group tours and other visitors, but the tiny valley — it’s just 30 miles long and five miles wide — has managed to steer clear of fast-food restaurants and chain stores. That’s due to its Agricultural Preserve status, in place since 1968 and the first of its kind in the country.
“When people come here they see vineyard after vineyard, and that’s pretty much it, except for wineries,” said Napa Valley Vintners director of communications Korinne Munson. “Thanks to the preserve, we don’t have a lot of other development. It’s kept pretty natural and centered around wine, which is a great thing for all of us.”
Napa, which hosted 3.8 million guests last year, is renowned for its cabernet sauvignon. And with 16 different subappellations, it gives groups a variety of flavors to experience.
“Cabernet lovers might like a more red fruit, more lush, which has a tendency to come from the valley floor or a warmer climate,” Munson said. “And then they can also go up into more mountainous or cooler areas and experience more black fruit flavors, like a blackberry or cassis or a plum, and higher acidity — so brighter, more crisp kind of flavors.”
For the easiest motorcoach accessibility, groups can stay on or close to Highway 29, which runs through the valley and offers wineries like Castello di Amorosa. Located within a medieval-style castle, it offers groups experiences like private tours, wine tastings and specialty pairing. Or head to Long Meadow Ranch, which features stunning gardens and a number of bespoke group packages.
Sonoma County, California
Like Napa Valley, its compact neighbor to the east, the wide-ranging Sonoma County boasts a diverse assortment of larger wineries happy to welcome groups. With more than 60 types of grapes grown in the county, there is also an assortment of great varietals from which to choose. Chardonnay is the undisputed king, with some 15,000 acres of it planted in Sonoma; others include pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc and zinfandel. Today, about 85% of Sonoma County wineries remain family-owned and -operated, and it’s this statistic as much as anything else that has probably helped Sonoma remain a little more laid-back than glittering, glamorous Napa.
When asked what makes Sonoma a great destination for groups, Jaimie du Bois, tourism development manager for Sonoma County Tourism, replied immediately, “Personality and hospitality. Even though Sonoma County is a globally recognized wine region, the wineries here and the families behind them greet each visitor, including groups, with the same warmth that you’d greet a family member with. We are a down-to-earth community that welcomes all visitors.”
Groups in search of landmark Sonoma County vintners need look no further than Buena Vista Winery, which offers a winemaking museum, picnic grounds and special events like theatrical performances. Founded in 1857, it bills itself as California’s first premium winery. Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery specializes in wines like fumé blanc and cabernet sauvignon, which it serves to groups in a spectacular, Italian-estate setting.
You may know Seattle for Starbucks, the Space Needle and grunge music, but the city is quickly becoming a wine destination thanks to the wineries that have increasingly set up shop there. Many are not only tasting rooms but also actual producers that crush grapes brought in from the state’s viticulture areas, ferment the juice, and age and bottle the wine on-site, giving groups the chance to tour winemaking facilities similar to those found in rural areas. All pour vino good enough to have helped snag the city a spot on Wine Enthusiast’s 2016 shortlist of the country’s top urban winery destinations.
“In recent years, we’ve seen more than 30 wineries and tasting rooms open in the downtown area — predominantly in the southern neighborhoods of the city, like Pioneer Square, Georgetown and SODO,” said Chantelle Lusebrink, public relations manager for Visit Seattle. “They give visitors opportunities to discover some of Washington’s finest wines without having to leave the city. In particular, this is ideal for groups who want to learn more about Washington’s excellent wineries and wine regions while still enjoying iconic downtown attractions like the Space Needle, Pike Place Market or the waterfront.”
Group members will get a kick out of visiting Charles Smith Wines Jet City, the West Coast’s biggest urban winery, where they can watch planes fly in and out next door at Boeing Field, and sample brands like K Vintners, Sixto, Substance, Vino CasaSmith and B. Leighton. Meanwhile, boutique winery Elsom Cellars, which specializes in reds like malbec and grenache, welcomes groups small and large, offering those with more than 40 people buyouts of their space, with options like winemaker meets and warehouse tours available.
Columbia Valley, Washington
There are a few other viticultural regions in the state, but the expansive Columbia Valley produces 99% of the wine grapes grown in Washington. This, said Steve Warner, president of the Washington State Wine Commission, is a result of the valley’s “amazing growing conditions.”
“We get about 300 days of sunshine and about an hour and a half more daylight in the summer compared to, say, California because we’re farther north,” he said. “If we get any precipitation at all, it’s usually in winter. So we can use drip irrigation to really dial in the growth of the fruit, and then we have very unique soils that differentiates us as well.”
Numerous smaller viticulture areas sit tucked away within the greater Columbia Valley, among them Red Mountain, Walla Walla Valley, Rattlesnake Hills and Ancient Lakes. Producers there most typically plant riesling, merlot and chardonnay, but according to Warner, what they share as much as anything is a congeniality that makes their businesses a great destination for groups. “There’s a lot of friendliness and approachability,” he said, “not to mention beauty and great wine.”
Home to hundreds of wineries, the Columbia Valley gives groups loads from which to choose, but among the most intriguing is the Southwestern-style Desert Wind Winery. Best known for its red blend, Ruah, the winery offers tastings to groups of 10 to 50. Groups of up to 40 may opt for a guided wine and food pairing at Columbia Crest, worth a visit not only for its vino but also for its spectacular location overlooking the Columbia River.
Willamette Valley, Oregon
When groups visit Oregon’s Willamette Valley, they’re going to be tasting some of the world’s best pinot noir, according to Andrew Finver, Tesla Custom Winery Tours guide. That’s partly because of the area’s basalt and marine sedimentary soil, and the cooling wind blowing in from the Pacific.
“More than 80% of the wine produced here is pinot noir, which is a very finicky grape,” Finver said. “It’s thin-skinned, and it doesn’t like superhot temperatures. Pinot likes cooler temperatures, and it really likes the Willamette Valley. It’s said the Willamette Valley is the second-best region in the world for pinot noir outside of Burgundy, France.”
Willamette Valley wineries remain mostly what Finver calls “mom-and-pop operations,” which he believes makes for a “charming” experience for the group visitor.
“At the end of the day, you remember that wine is still an agricultural product,” he said. “It’s easy to forget that connection to the soil when you’re in a lot of bigger places. And if you shop well here you can get a very good bottle of pinot for $25 or $30 and a world-class one for $50 or $60.”
While some of the valley’s mom-and-pop wineries are too small to accept larger groups, there are plenty that do, including Domaine Serene Vineyards and Winery. The pinot, as promised, is superb, and the lavish winery can create a wide range of custom experiences for groups. Ponzi Vineyards, a second generation-owned and -operated winery, provides events tailored to groups in its sleek, modern facility that can include goodies like a dedicated space and a private host.